Growing up in the seventies in the Netherlands, I believe the most exotic produce in the local supermarket were limes and oranges; at that point, I had never seen, let alone touched (or eaten) an artichoke. Then, when my California boyfriend put one on the table one day (this was still in the Netherlands), I approached this green vegetable with its pointy leaves with suspicion. To me it looked like a petrified pine cone, the kind of object that you might see on turrets and archways of gothic cathedrals in the South of France. I had no idea how to cook the thing or how to eat it and for a moment I was inclined to ignore the creature by pushing it toward the rear of the fridge and have it die a slow and painful death. Naturally, this says a lot about my own culinary lack of sophistication because once I arrived in California which, as a state, is responsible for 100% of the artichokes that are eaten in all of the US, I realized that the artichoke is far from rare or exotic but as common as the lack of rainfall in California.
The artichoke has a long and illustrious history: because it does well in warm coastal climates, originating from the Mediterranean (possibly, Sicily), it is not so surprising that the artichoke already had its place in Greek mythology, and the story goes as follows: the god of gods, almighty Zeus, fell in love with a young gal who lived on the coast. To include her in his harem, he changed her into a goddess and took her to Mount Olympus. But the poor girl was homesick, ached for the coast and disobeyed orders by paying an incognito visit to her mother. When Zeus heard this, he became enraged and tossed her back to earth where she changed into a purple coastal flower: the artichoke.
The Romans considered the artichoke a culinary delicacy and believed it to be an aphrodisiac. Catherine de Medici who, in the sixteenth century, introduced artichokes at the French Court, apparently seemed to notice that these Venus flowers impacted the women, who, after eating them, became much more flirtatious with the men. Not sure if artichokes are truly like Viagra for women but it does have a ton of fiber, so if you eat too many, you’re bound to spend a night on the toilet rather than in bed with your favorite boytoy…
In 1548, the first artichoke arrived in England. What happened over there should not be blamed on English cuisine but it did become apparent that the artichoke was much less popular in Northern Europe: when the German poet Goethe traveled through Italy and saw how farmers sat down to eat artichokes, he mocked them by saying that the peasants were eating “thistles”.
The Spaniards brought the first artichokes to California in the 1600s but it took three centuries before the artichoke became a legitimate vegetable in American cuisine. Although Italian immigrants to California had cultivated artichokes for their own consumption in the coastal area of Half Moon Bay, it was Andrew Molera, a rich farmer in the Salinas Valley, who started growing the vegetable in greater volumes which took off so much that seven years later, in 1929, the artichoke was the third most prominent agricultural product of California.
So now artichokes are everywhere and Monterey County is a true haven for artichokes: 84% of all artichokes in the US come from this beautiful coastal region of California. Castroville in Monterey County even has an annual artichoke festival… When Marilyn Monroe was nothing but a starlet, she visited Castroville in 1947 and someone asked her if she wanted to become the Queen of Artichokes. She said yes, and I would like to believe that this is how the artichoke got its sex-appeal.
Artichokes are easy to prepare and are an excellent appetizer if you are tired of chips and guac. Cut off the stems, cook the thing in boiling water (some people say 45 minutes, others stand by 25), add some lemon juice to the boiling water et voilà— if the leaves come off easily, they’re done. The bottom of the leaf is soft and edible and can be dipped in just about anything but many Americans use mayo. The prize is within, the purple artichoke heart– if you don’t want to mess with the hard leaves, you can buy artichoke hearts in glass jars– cheap in California but probably more expensive where artichokes aren’t grown.
When, one day, I presented my artichoke appetizer with a lovely vinaigrette and a Chardonnay from the Central Coast, our French guests exclaimed: “Ah, les artichauts! That’s what poor people eat in France!” Oh well, sometimes you just can’t win…